On November 6, the National Museum of Natural History opened its latest exhibit: Verde Island Passage (VIP).
Organized and initiated by the Manila-based think tank Center of Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED) and the group Protect VIP, the exhibit, titled “Our VIP: Protecting a Paradise in Peril,” showcased spectacular photographs, some never-before-seen underwater features and marine species in the VIP, and the challenges facing the rich maritime area.
The photographs were taken by renowned underwater photographers of the country, including Gutsy Tuason, Danny Ocampo, Boogs Rosales and Marivic Maramot, among others.
Gerry Arances, CEED executive director and co-convenor of Protect VIP, said that through the exhibit they hope to inspire both awe and action to save the VIP.
“The exhibit will be there at the National Museum for three months,” he told the BusinessMirror in a telephone interview on November 27.
A memorandum of agreement was signed by CEED and the National Museum to showcase the VIP through a photo exhibition that will help raise public awareness about its beauty and the threats to its existence.
Beauty and ‘beast’
In an interview on November 25, Ocampo, an underwater photography expert, shared that the VIP is truly fascinating.
However, he said not all scenes underwater are awesome because there are also photos of the “beast”—ocean plastic pollution—that are slowly killing the beauty of VIP.
In the exhibit are rare photos of goby corals and sea snakes, he said.
“But there’s also garbage,” he said.
During his dives in the VIP area—which covers the provinces of Batangas, Romblon and Occidental and Oriental Mindoro—”one gets to see so many species,” Ocampo said.
He shared that ever since he started diving in the VIP back in 1989, he has seen new species in almost every dive.
It was in one of his dives that he was able to photograph a Sailfin Velifer, which, according to fish experts, was the “first photographic evidence underwater” of the species.
On ocean plastic pollution, he said: “I feel sad and sometimes hopeless whenever I see plastics underwater, especially ones that can be avoided so as not to amass and pile up in the ocean. A lot of it, really is from the consumer side that can be changed, but there are others [garbage] that will need government and corporations to change the delivery system and packaging of their products,” he said.
‘Center of the center of shorefish biodiversity’
Considered by scientists as the “center of the center of shorefish biodiversity,” the VIP is one of the country’s economically important water bodies.
In 2005, Kent Carpenter of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and Victor Springer of the Smithsonian Institution—have said a total of 1,736 overlapping marine species found over a vast 10-kilometer area that has the highest concentration of marine life, thus, declaring it the center of the center of shorefish biodiversity.
Important water body
It is an important fishing ground as well as a shipping route that allows sea transportation to bring people, as well as goods and services, from one port to another.
Specifically, this maritime area sits in the heart of several island provinces. It separates Batangas on the main island of Luzon on one side, and the island provinces of Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon on the other.
Between Batangas and Mindoro, where passengers and cargo ships pass, sits Batangas City’s Verde Island, from which the strait was named.
While the VIP may be rich in marine biodiversity, the unbridled development and other anthropogenic pressures, or pollution caused by human activities, are taking their toll on fishing communities around it, Arances said.
Grateful to the National Museum for hosting the exhibit, he said “We want to bring the beauty of these underwater features and the richness of the VIP to the people through photographs. These photos are proof of what exists in that area.”
In a way, Arances said the exhibit is their way of raising public awareness of what the people stand to lose if the VIP remains unprotected.
On the same day the exhibit was opened, CEED and Protect VIP launched an online petition to have the VIP declared as a Protected Area under the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENipas) Act.
The online petition mentions that the VIP is home to 60 percent of shorefish species in the country, along with 300 coral species and reef formations.
Its resources provide food and livelihood for more than two million Filipinos. However, they are threatened by climate change, oil spills, shipping impacts, and the proliferation of fossil gas terminals and power plants in the surrounding area.
In a statement, National Museum Deputy Director General Jorell Legaspi was quoted in highlighting the importance of the exhibit to generate public awareness to protect the VIP.
“With the challenges facing the integrity of the VIP, we hope that this exhibition will not only increase public consciousness and positive reception of the VIP’s role in the country’s food security and in abating climate change, but we are also looking forward to heightening the call to legally protect the VIP,” Legaspi said.
“As such, the [National Museum] supports the advocacy of protecting and conserving this important Passage where biodiversity is at its highest so that our upcoming generations will continue to have a secured future in terms of sustenance, health, and well-being,” he said.
At risk, highly vulnerable
Citing the recent oil spill that affected Mindoro, Batangas, and other areas as far as Visayas, Arances said the VIP is at risk and highly vulnerable to pressures caused by human activities and unrestricted and unchecked business interests.
To recall, on February 28, more than 900,000 liters of industrial oil were leaked by the sinking of MT Princess Empress.
Arances noted that until now, no one was held accountable.
“This tragedy prevented thousands of fisherfolk from fishing in the area and affected the economies of the towns that depend on fishing and tourism for income,” he said.
Arances pointed out that despite the dangers of leaks from the passage of ships with toxic cargo, the government continues to encourage the building of gas power plants in the area, which will naturally drive up ship traffic and increase chances of another, more serious accident.
“The loss of the biodiversity of VIP will spell disaster for the country. Not only do we lose an ecological treasure, we would also lose a significant source of our food and tourism revenue from those who wish to see its natural wonders,” said Father Edwin Gariguez, lead convenor of Protect VIP.
“ENipas is a legal instrument that must be immediately and urgently bestowed to the VIP and we hope that this exhibit will be the first step in achieving this goal,” Gariguez added.